Retrovision: The Road to Economic Development

This post originally appeared on 06 June 2013. This post has been slightly edited.

As an El Pasoan, I appreciate the civic improvements that City Hall is foisting on us.  (Can I even call it City Hall anymore? It’s more like City Sprawl.) But to offer the improvements as drivers of economic development (as Tripper Goodman did here in this article in the El Paso Inc.) is wrongheaded.

If the goal is economic development, isn’t there a better way we could have spent the $100 million plus that we’re throwing at the new ballpark and the itinerant City Hall?

The notion that revitalizing downtown will spur outside investment in the community seems a stretch. How does that work, exactly? Are “vibrant downtowns” table stakes in the game to recruit outside companies? Wouldn’t a vibrant city accomplish the same goal? Does the captains-of-industry checklist include a box for vibrant downtown?

The last time I was in downtown L.A., the rats owned it. The streets were deserted, and the only bar open was a dive where me and my business casual associates were mistaken for po po. Somehow, L.A. got a pass on the “vibrant downtown” requirement. Lots of cities improved their downtowns after they were economic dynamos, like L.A. is trying to do now. Because attractive cities have vibrant downtowns doesn’t mean that vibrant downtowns are necessary for successful cities. As my friends at the Pine Knot Junior used to say, Post hoc ergo propter hoc. I always thought that they were just drunk.

Strategically, the accepted wisdom is to put money into your strengths. Shoring up your weaknesses is a loser’s gambit. That’s something you do when you’re ahead of the game, and you’ve got a little breathing room.

Revitalizing downtown El Paso does little more than line the pockets of the local heavy hitters who invested heavily in the REIT (to whom most of our local politicians are beholden). Reason, sometimes, slips away to rationalization. Sometimes it’s hard for even the rationalizer to tell the difference.

What if, instead of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into recreational amenities for downtown, we’d devoted a fraction of that money to developing our intellectual capital? What if we created programs to develop music, or the arts? For a fraction of the money we’re spending on those shiny and controversial baubles we could hire the best educators and administrators, and develop programs that would lure the brightest minds in the country.

We’ve already demonstrated strengths in those areas. At the Drive In was successful because they developed a unique style due, in part, I believe, to El Paso’s cultural singularity and isolation. Cormac McCarthy wrote the books that made him most popular while he lived in Kern Place. The success of both of those examples was dependent on the creative strengths of individuals. But El Paso has demonstrated that we possess the infrastructure necessary to nurture creative people. Unfortunately, we do very little support it.

El Paso can be stultifying. El Pasoans can be judgmental. El Pasoans can be invidious. El Pasoans don’t enjoy the anonymity that comes with bigger cities.

There’s no future in being the consumers of popular culture. El Pasoans need to be creators. And ballparks and arenas aren’t going to get us there.


  1. Rich, Thanks for re-posting this. Seems like Nothing changes. I see how the Tripper was fired a short year later…and people were up in arms then. Yes, El Paso is unique, and no matter how much the Oligarch’s want El Paso to be like Phoenix, its strength is just being El Paso. And with 24% of El Paso living below the Poverty line, I’m not sure how many folks can afford Downtown amenities….

  2. You and others keep saying this narrative that El Paso is unique and I agree, but have a hard time coming up with positive examples of uniqueness. The City wants to make us attractive with large vanity projects and DTEP TIRZ projects that cost us, not the oligarchs, our future tax streams. I believe their rationale is that this is what other attractive cities have done. So it’s like a “best practices” approach – do this and they will come.

    The recent Downtown + Uptown Master Plan was an example of this strategy to make the area a kind of hipster haven and, fortunately, it got pushback. But it shows us how the City thinks, if you can call it that – create development opportunity for the elite and they will fill in the blanks with future tax base (that is probably TIRZ, too).

    I have come to believe that there is not a one-size-fits-all philosophy or Theory-of-Everything (TOE) for city-building but there is an organizing principle, that of focus – what is it you want to optimize, because you can’t optimize everything or you risk losing focus? An Aspen or a Carmel or a La Jolla optimizes ambience and services for tourists and wealthy residents, but not for their teachers, nurses and salon workers who cannot afford to live there. Houston optimizes opportunity – housing, employment and business -but at the cost of the environment, urban beauty, and convenience in that you have to get on a freeway for an hour to do anything. There’s no free lunch.

    So, what is El Paso trying to optimize and does it make sense in the context of its capability? To me it seems that we tell ourselves it’s all good while we go about the real agenda of trickle-up economics, i.e., optimizing wealth creation for a donor class of investors, developers and builders at the expense of average homeowners, who see little in the way of job-creation and even less tax base offset for their contribution. It is why El Paso grows, but doesn’t deepen and prosper.

    When that changes, things might change. But remember that El Paso as a border city is not entirely in charge of its destiny that is at the whim of US foreign policy or the lack of it.

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